Home Thoughts From Abroad

Travel is largely a matter of enjoying differences, but this is seldom a permanent pleasure 

There goes a swallow to Venice
  the stout seafarer!
Seeing those birds fly, makes one wish
  for wings.

So wrote old Browning, sitting in his English garden one spring morning, and O! I know too well that delicious pull of distant parts, foreign places, and different ways of living. I have watched the birds fly off too, as the drizzle falls out of a gray Welsh sky, the sheep in the field next door stand there hangdog and reproachful, and whenever the telephone rings it seems to be somebody getting the wrong number—oh, yes, I've wished for the wings of a 747 often enough, when the opposite of homesickness sets in.

And I know well, too, the exquisite thrill of moving into a new house somewhere altogether else, in somebody else's country, where the climate is different, the food is different, the light is different, where the mundane preoccupations of life at home don't seem to apply and it is even fun to go shopping. Travel itself, after all, is largely a matter of enjoying differences—why else would those swallows migrate? Transferring one's whole being—family, possessions, bank accounts, blankets, mixers, and all—gives us the same pleasure in less restless form.

It is seldom a permanent pleasure. Most people I know who move to a foreign part do not stay there forever, just as people who succumb to the allure of isolated islands generally seem to creep back sheepishly, sooner or later, to the conveniences of suburbia. All my own excursions into the expatriate condition have been temporary, but that has not made them any the less exciting. When we find our dream retreat far away, most of us know well enough that its first foreign delights are presently going to wear off, until they hardly seem foreign at all; we put that out of our minds, though, and glory in our exotic new garden, poke happily around our smoke-stained antique kitchen, peer dreamily from our leaded casement window, as though it is all going to be fresh and strange forever.

I have had many such moments of delightful self-delusion. I remember as if it were yesterday the moment I first stepped aboard the superannuated river steamer Saphir, moored on the banks of the Nile in Cairo, where my family and I were to spend some of the happiest years of our lives. The Egyptian sun was blazing that day, but canvas awnings cast an exotic shade over the poop, which was littered with divans and cushions like a sultan's seraglio. In our living quarters the light streamed brazenly through the shutters in almost tangible rays. My workplace was the wheelhouse on the upper deck, all glass and blistered white paint, and here and there around the ship servants in spotless djellabas and turbans smilingly awaited our every pleasure.

The Saphir sank in the end, but we were long gone by then, and had moved into some other fascinatingly alien home. Was it the top-floor flat in the Venetian palace that came next, with the majestic view over the Grand Canal and the soft swish of oars outside our windows that orchestrated the night hours? Or was it the apartment in the antebellum mansion in Vicksburg, Mississippi, with its high white balcony that Jefferson Davis had spoken from and its heady scents of tobacco plant and jasmine drifting past the kitchen window? Or the house above the water in Hong Kong, the sampans clustered below the bluff, the great container ships offshore, the clink of wind chimes and the clank of cooking pots?

I forget now which came when: what about the apartment in Sydney, looking below the Harbour Bridge to the flying white wings of the Opera House beyond, or the sweet little clapboard house in Cranbury, New Jersey, or that apartment on Forty-ninth Street in Manhattan, where the fire engines triumphantly rode by, or—yes, when did we live in that adorable chalet in the Haute-Savoie, where we skied in our own back yard in the winter, and in the spring welcomed the itinerant distillery to the apple orchards. They were foreign places every one—alien, exotic places—and they have blurred in my memory into a glorious mosaic of new experiences and new delights.

W hy is it, then, that I have never felt entirely comfortable, entirely natural, in those delectable foreign homes? Other people evidently have no such trouble. Americans in particular, who come from restless stock by the nature of things, seem to find themselves altogether at ease putting down roots, however transient, in foreign parts. It is part of their heritage, I suppose. They are settlers by inheritance, and they are still especially accomplished at making themselves homes away from home.

It is different for me. I am a traveler by profession but not by instinct. My people have not lived outside the British Isles since the dawn of time—my English maternal forebears for at least a thousand years, my Welsh paternal ancestors probably never. In my white wheelhouse on the Saphir, among the magnolias of Vicksburg, watching the ships sail by in Hong Kong, wine-bibbing on my Venetian balcony, sociable in Manhattan, or tobogganing in our alpine garden in France—in none of our adopted homes, though I was always deliriously happy, was I ever entirely settled.

This is because I was always, at the back of my heart, homesick. On another day, in another place, in another mood, Browning wrote another verse, "Home-Thoughts, From Abroad," remembering the chaffinch on its English orchard bough, the blossomed pear tree in the hedge, the careless rapture of the thrush's call, and all the images and suggestions and evocations of his homeland. I am with him there, too: the swallows on their way south may call me to follow them, but that damned thrush, singing the same exuberant song over and over again, always summons me home.

Homesickness is the most delicious form of nostalgia, if only because, generally speaking, it really can be gratified. We cannot return to the past, but we can go home again. In my case homesickness is related to something the Welsh language calls hiraeth. This overworked word (the Welsh are big on emotions) means literally "longing," "nostalgia," or sometimes plain "grief." It has come to signify, however, something even less exact: longing, yes, but for nothing definite; nostalgia, but for an indeterminate past; grief without cause or explanation. Hiraeth!—an insidious summation of all that is most poetical, most musical, most regretful, most opaque, most evasive, most inextinguishable, in the character of Wales.

Hiraeth it is, then, that makes me feel, even as I unpack the bags in our new and lovely Mediterranean villa, our quaint wooden house upon the fjord, or our Barbados penthouse, that I shan't be there for long. I am not a settler, only a wanderer perhaps. I am not made to be an exile, and in this I am honoring the instincts of my paternal forebears down the ages. The Welsh have never been easy migrants. They have left their homes for more prosperous, more tolerant, or more comfortable countries because they have had to, but we read in their old diaries how forlornly, until the last dim line of the Welsh shore disappeared from view, they lingered together over the rails of their emigrant ships. Many of them presently became assimilated citizens of their new countries, but many more hoped all their lives to return to Wales, and sometimes they did. Joseph Jenkins from Tregaron, for example, who had become an archetypal Australian swagman during his long years down under, returned at last in his seventy-seventh year in order to die in the hills of Cardiganshire.

This powerful homing instinct is inexplicable. The old Welsh emigrants had left Wales because their lives there were poor and miserable, yet nothing could suppress the hiraeth within them, and nothing can suppress it in me, either. Nobody, I swear, has had more pleasure from traveling than I have, and nobody has pushed more eagerly through the door of a rented house somewhere far away. Yet the old sensation nags at me always, part sweet, part sad, part consolation, part reproach. Most expatriates, if you press them, will admit to something they miss during their idyllic residences abroad: decent eggs and bacon for the English, a proper beer cellar for the Germans, The New York Times, perhaps, or cornflakes for Americans. For me it is nothing so specific. A perceptive American once observed that a Welshman's truth was in the nature of a circle, and, similarly, what I crave when I am living abroad is rather in the form of a blur.

It is the sense of belonging that I miss, together with infusions of historical awareness and sensuality. I miss the stones of home. I miss the smell of the wood smoke and the sound of the river below the woods. I miss the murmur of the Welsh language. I miss my cat, Ibsen. I miss my books. I miss the old beams of my house and the tumble of possessions, memories, and reminders that tells me it is mine, all mine. I miss, of course, wherever I am, the ones I love the best, and I miss—well, not to put too fine a point upon it, I miss dear old Wales.

So I stand with Browning, either way. When the swallows fly south, I want to go with them, but when I hear that thrush calling, I need to go the other way: up our dusty, potholed lane, through the shabby old oak gates, into the familiar, the irreplaceable embrace of home, where there is no need for hiraeth, where love awaits me and the kettle's always on the boil.